It was the 29th of June, the first Iftar of Ramadan.
It was the start of a month of peace and amicability, of tolerance and forgiveness, of coexistence. My Facebook inbox was flooded with heartwarming messages from my Muslim friends wishing me a peaceful month of reflection and expression of love. I was invited to a dinner by Hagai, an Israeli educator involved in Seeds of Peace, in Gush Etzion, a settlement on the outskirt of Hebron in the West Bank. Gush Etzion happened to be about a thirty-second walk from the crossroad where the kidnapping of the three Israeli teenagers happened.
A lot of us were invited. Not many of us decided to go. We had just returned from Jordan after a packed week of educator program workshops. Earlier in the morning, we followed our close friend Iddo, a left-ring Israeli, an Arabic and history teacher and a master storyteller, on a tour of the Church of the Sepulchre. Everyone around me, most of whom are religious, kneeled in front of Jesus’s tomb, kissed the table where he was resurrected, and shed tears with gratitude, shock and total surrender of faith. Three of my close friends refused to visit the settlement, not now, not ever.
It was the first time I crossed into the West Bank after the kidnapping. It was my first time ever in a settlement. I had to pause for a moment and take in that moment of irony and contradiction. The sun was setting, projecting the remaining warmth onto scattered Palestinian villages on the hills.
At one point, Hagai stopped the car at the highest point of the highway. Staring into the stunning view in this crisp evening, he pointed around and said: “This is Jerusalem. Over there, that is the Old City of Hebron. And if you look further over there, see the line of light at the far end? That’s Gaza. We are really pretty much looking at the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
Standing there and imagining families all across West Bank about to bring out falafel and labneh to the Iftar table, I prayed that they house wouldn’t get raided that night, that Ramadan could truly be a time of peace despite the tension everywhere for everyone. We drove through miles of rather barren fields, a military base, walls and fences and wires and more walls blatantly declaring boundaries of territory. Border crossing to get to a settlement was such a different experience from the daily commute to Ramallah through Kalandia Checkpoint. We didn’t need to stop at any checkpoint, no walking through narrow jail-like walk path and metal detectors, and no witnessing Palestinian women in full hijab wailing in questioning rooms. No hard feelings. Easy. Natural.
Without warning, the barrenness ended. Walls on the two sides of the road converged into an iron gate. Gush Etzion was like a utopian island in the middle of nothingness. The West Bank was still quietly waiting for the start of Iftar but here everything was alive. The community center was brightly lit, the school parking lot was full, kids were running down the street and the settlement was simply, alive. The invitation to visit Hagai came at a special time. He was supposed to join us in the annual Educator Program workshop in Jordan.
The night before we departed, Hagai called and informed us, with an apologetic and torn tone, that he wouldn’t be joining us because his family wouldn’t let him travel to Jordan. He said that in a time of such agony and adversity, he simply did not feel safe traveling through the border to and in Jordan. Hagai wasn’t the only one. Five Israeli educators dropped out because they didn’t feel physically safe in Jordan. Four Gaza educators tried and failed to be let out of Gaza three days in a row. Two middle age Palestinians from Hebron weren’t allowed out of the besieged Hebron City because no male under the age of fifty is allowed out without a permit. Maha from Hebron made it out because she’s a female and had to worry, day and night, for her family as they, along with every family in Hebron, waited for the IDF to raid and search the house. They could hear them knocking on nearby doors. They knew IDF was coming any night now. When I arrived in Kempinski, the single most expensive resort in Jordan, where we were hosting the workshop, I sat down amongst the Palestinian high school
teachers and art instructors who look almost frightened and quite out of place in this extravagant place filled with gulf millionaires and Jordanian elite and felt myself trembling with tears in my eyes. They chose to be here, among us, against all odds. Their kitchen and living room at home might have been destroyed last night when the IDF broke in; their neighborhood might have been set on fire. They were feeling the anger, the powerlessness of the innocent people in front of politics and conflict so much bigger than all of us. But they made a brave and extraordinary decision to come to a workshop on conflict resolution, to be in the same room with people from the other side, and to suffer through the humiliation crossing back into the occupied West Bank because they know full well that people from the other side are equally innocent and deserve an equal right to dialogue.
I know that the risks Israelis took to be there are equally extraordinary because I saw the pain and sadness in their eyes when we, as staff, had to warn all Israelis to take all precautions, speak English, and try hard not to be identifiable as Israelis. A lot has happened in the past two weeks. The discovery of bodies of the three Israeli teenagers rose to international headline for the first time, achieving what the three weeks of raids and violence by the IDF never came close to achieve in the news business. I have Israeli friends who go on demonstrations for non-violence, and Palestinian friends who went on air debating and informing the public in Al Jazeera English and BBC programs.
I have personally witnessed an extraordinary amount of agony and pain in others, more than anyone should ever need to bear. But somehow it was that moment of me sitting amidst Palestinian and Israeli educators in the grandeur of Kempinski resort lobby that really stuck with me. It was the amount of will power present in that lobby. It was the courage to face history, reality, and most importantly, each other, in a way more direct than Israeli soldiers raiding Palestinian house or Palestinian youth throwing stones at Israeli military. It was the lack of need, and urge, to know everyone’s every story, every moment of heartbreak. It was the sense of solidarity to simply sit there and be together, despite the wars our countries are waging on each other.
Working with Seeds of Peace, I don’t have a nine-to-five work schedule. I run from place to place, meet and connect with people, and listen to narratives, biases, opinions, and facts. In the last month, I’ve heard hundreds of pieces of these facts and opinions. This conflict and, more recently, this crisis, is bigger than all of us. I don’t trust, and allow, myself to tell you someone else’s story. I would be unfair to them, to me, and to you if I try to recount these opinions and facts that are pieced together to become stories. It would be unfair to pretend that I know even twenty minutes of what they went through and that those twenty-minute episodes they shared with me reflect their lives. These are not stories—these are lives. I can’t pick and choose a few narratives to provide you with a glimpse of this conflict hoping you could synthesize and make up your own mind because it’s such an injustice to the stories I told but might have distorted and manipulated, not to mention the stories I didn’t mention. I think I’m avoiding the danger of a single story by staying away from trying to depict this place, this crisis, and these people with words. I dare not take on the task of informing you because I’m constantly in shock of how biased I am and how many biased perspectives there have to be to provide a relatively complete picture.
I’ll end with a quote from Chimamanda Adichie’s TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story”, which has resonated with me immensely every time I read it. “Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person. The Palestinian poet Mourid Barghouti writes that if you want to dispossess a people, the simplest way to do it is to tell their story, and to start with, “secondly.” Start the story with the arrows of the Native Americans, and not with the arrival of the British, and you have and entirely different story. Start the story with the failure of the African state, and not with the colonial creation of the African state, and you have an entirely different story.”